The Loma Prietan - January 2013

Our Wins

Bagless by the Bay

by Mimi Sanicola and Adrien Salazar

Plastic bags are an alarming amount of our trash.  Local governments are trying to cut down on them. Photo: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Plastic bags are an alarming amount of our trash. Local governments are trying to cut down on them. Photo: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Those single-use plastic bags that grocery stores hand out by the trunkful have become an endangered species on the San Francisco Peninsula, as cities across San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties are banning them, making the region one of the most advanced in plastic waste prevention. Most recently, Mountain View adopted the ordinance during the first week of December by a 5-2 city council vote. Cupertino, Palo Alto, and San Carlos will vote on their bans by early 2013. Many cities are setting their ordinances to go into effect by Earth Day, April 23, 2013.

Plastic bag ban ordinances measurably reduce the amount of toxic plastic litter. Nearly a year since it passed its ban on plastic bags, San Jose found the amount of plastic bag litter in city streets reduced by 59% and plastic bags in storm drains reduced by 89%.

The Chapter advocates for the bans through its Zero Waste Committee and its Cool Cities teams. Eliminating these petroleum-based products not only reduces litter but also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We encourage support and provide public comment at all meetings where such bans are discussed.  

Over 20 billion plastic bags are used in California every year, and fewer than 4.3% are recycled.  Plastic bag litter ends up in our environment, streets, and waterways. Many end up in our oceans, where they are eaten by wildlife, which then contributes to the accumulation of toxic substances in their bodies.

In October San Mateo County supervisors unanimously passed a county-wide ordinance banning single-use plastic bags from all retail stores. Now the 24 cities that signed onto the county’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR)—including six in Santa Clara County—are passing their individual ordinances to begin implementing the ban. For an ordinance to go into effect, cities in San Mateo County must simply adopt it, using the language provided by the county. Santa Clara County cities must first certify the San Mateo County EIR before moving to adopt an ordinance.

San Mateo County’s bag ban ordinance discourages the use of plastic bags by requiring retailers to charge 10 cents for every plastic bag provided to customers until January 1, 2015. After that,customers will be charged a quarter per bag. The cities that partnered with San Mateo County to write the EIR are Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, Campbell, Colma, Cupertino, Daly City, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Menlo Park, Milpitas, Mountain View, Pacifica, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Mateo, South San Francisco, and Woodside.

Some cities that did not join the EIR were already well on their way in banning plastic bags. San Jose and Sunnyvale in Santa Clara County and Millbrae in San Mateo County pioneered the region's efforts by passing and implementing their ordinances well before San Mateo County passed its ban. Palo Alto passed a ban for supermarkets and is currently planning to expand its ban.

Mimi Sanicola is the Chapter’s Zero Waste Intern and a student at Santa Clara University.
Adrien Salazar is the Chapter’s Conservation Program Coordinator and a resident of San Jose.